Monday 31 August 2020

Stoke Council's Conservative Coup d'etat

Don't write about Stoke for ages and two local politics stories come along at once. Last night, preparations were nearing their climax. Tanks were assembling and reliable infantry units were radioed into place. And then, as the August Bank Holiday got underway, the coup! An email from Council Leader Abi Brown charged into Deputy Council Leader (and City Independent group leader) Ann James's inbox informing her with immediate effect that she was sacked. Cllr Joanne Powell-Beckett, also of the CIndies, was out too. In a rousing show of defiance not seen since Salvador Allende defended the presidential palace gun-in-hand, Cllr James said "We don't have any cabinet members now, so as far as I'm concerned the coalition is over." Note the words as far as I'm concerned because for two of her colleagues, it isn't. Former BNP councillor Melanie Baddeley and the outgoing racist Lord Mayor Jackie Barnes hang on as City Indy councillors pocketing an extra six grand as "cabinet support" members. Curious how Stoke Tories have moved from staying silent about racism to awarding it.

This isn't the first time the Tory leader has made her erstwhile allies look like the grasping fools they are. Save for the BNP and UKIP, nothing speaks of Stoke-on-Trent's civic decay better than the City Independents. United only by a shared animosity toward Labour and a penchant for the most backward, white-washed nostalgia, they couldn't wait to get into bed with the Tories after the 2015 local elections. Despite promising in a rather eccentric and extravagant manifesto they wouldn't countenance going into coalition with anyone, this promise took all of two minutes before the memory hole claimed it. And, straight away, as senior partners to the Tories they telegraphed their stupidity to the world by giving them all the most glamorous, media-facing posts in the cabinet enabling them to front up every good news story about x jobs created, y buildings built, and z public amenities given a lick of paint and smartened up. Then council leader, the incoherent bag of potatoes David Conway, was so unsuited to the job that officers quickly realised they had to go to Cllr Brown to get anything done. It wasn't too difficult then for her to appoint herself the public face of Stoke's City of Culture bid, which was unsuccessful, but gave her the sort of profile any half-decent council leader would beg for. Which says everything you need to know about Conway's political instincts.

Deservedly, Labour's David Williams removed him from the council chamber in an otherwise poor night in the 2019 locals, while the Tories gained eight councillors. The coalition resumed with the Tories having the upperhand, and Cllr James, the new CIndie leader, assuming the deputyship. And since the election, matters haven't been as smooth. Back in March the coalition suffered a major upset and were forced to climb down over attempts to immolate working conditions for the Council's lowest paid employees. They were defeated partly thanks to the refusal of six CIndies to go along with the scheme, including the Deputy Leader herself. With unreliables like this on your team and with terms and conditions to savage, the clock was ticking on the governing coalition. But for how long? Last Saturday gave us the answer with the defection of three CIndies and one Labour councillor. To be honest given the politics of Baddeley, Barnes, and Powell-Beckett it's a wonder they didn't hop on the Tory gravy train too.

Now with 19 councillors the Tories are the biggest party on the council, but are three short of an effective majority. Keeping the racists on the payroll confers them a voting bloc of 21. Arrayed against them are Labour's 14 councillors - former group leader Mohammed Pervez resigned abruptly in May. There are then the six non-payroll CIndies, and then two non-aligned councillors. The Tories have calculated, rightly, that given James's threat to pay Brown back for the ruthless filleting she received by, erm, promising to vote on motions on a case-by-case basis, and the non-aligned propensity to go here, there, and everywhere bar collaborating with Labour, the chances of pulling together a coherent opposition to Tory schemes are slim. It requires Labour shows as much nous as Abi Brown has to get the Tories into this position of dominance.

As with any moment of triumph, the seeds of downfall are also present. The first is gifting two cabinet posts to two of the turncoats. Why should loyal councillors who've gone out and done the leaflet rounds and photo opps, and who stuck with the party during the fallow times between 2011 and 2015 miss out on a £12k post for someone who was describing herself as a socialist as little as a fortnight ago and would go elsewhere if she received a better offer? If Labour were daft enough to offer her a clear run in either Central or North, she'd be back in the fold like a shot. And speaking of seats there is the question of Stoke-on-Trent Central, which went Conservative last December. It's the worst kept secret that local Tories are less than impressed with our new MP, Jo Gideon, who much prefers tending to her hedgerows in Kent than her constituents in Stoke. One can only wonder at what skulduggery and shenanigans might go on behind the scenes should she refuse to shape up. And the scramble for the seat if she's "helped" into deciding one term is enough. Would all the local Tories be tickety-boo to see a dishonest shyster like Cllr Ally Simcock or an unprincipled opportunist like Cllr Janine Bridges scoop their chance for parliamentary glory? One suspects not.

All that is for another time. For now, Abi Brown can take a moment and survey her achievements. The largest party on the City Council with it almost under her complete control, and the three city Westminster seats complementing the Tory clean sweep of the rest of Staffordshire. Enjoy it while you can Stoke Tories, for nothing in politics lasts forever.

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Anonymous said...

You might want to hold off the self righteousness when it comes to the City Independents. The latest rumors are that Cllr James is in coalition talks with Labour leaders. So you may very well have to explain very soon how Labour can possibly work with this unprincipled rabble of a group that you have described!

The truth is that Labour are as motivated by self interest and a desire for the high paying council cabinet jobs as anyone. If the City Independents will put them there, Labour will put their faux outrage aside like a shot.

Phil said...

Of course there are Labour people motivated by prestige and pay. But Labour won't go into coalition because, yes, some City Independents are *too* repugnant, they're liable to further fracturing, the membership are against it, and the council group is yet to determine its new leader. The imponderables and costs outweigh the benefits. I could be wrong - it wouldn't be the first time Stoke Labour have pressed the self-destruct button.

Nickoli said...

It might work - pushing the tories out would be a useful thing to achieve - but managing the coalition afterwards would involve a very difficult balance, especially given that the cindies are unlikely to be co-operative and central government may retaliate by imposing further cuts.

Phil said...

The point is moot. I understand Baddeley and Barnes have now left the CIndies reducing them to a rump of just six. Which makes a Labour-led coalition even less of a go-er.